January 2015

Susan Harlan


Requiem for a Bookstore


The Complete Traveller Antiquarian Bookstore at Madison Avenue and 35th Street in New York City closed on December 31 after over thirty years in business. It was a place that lined the world up on shelves. It was a temple to travel. Now, its collections are only available online.

The closure was due in part to a rent hike, as the manager Mike Durell explained to me. Durell, who is also a freelance writer, actor, and musician, has managed the store since 2007, and he spoke of it as a second home. A place you can browse.

I went to browse. The Complete Traveller housed roughly 7,000 books. Some were about journeys already undertaken; others helped travelers plan for future journeys. Some were not so much travel books as books about particular places. “Travel” is a capacious term, and the store brought together all sorts of materials. Animals of a particular region. Wines of a particular country. Anything that helped us to better understand places other than where we live.

On one wall were hundreds of small, red Baedekers. Durell said that he had counted them a few days before: “I have the number 542 stuck in my mind.”

I took a few off the shelf and looked through them. Northern Germany. Southern Germany. Central Italy. I thought of all the people who carried these books around decades ago, or a hundred years ago, and set them down on café tables or took them out to read about a stained-glass window in a church.

Not far from the shelves of Baedekers sat a brown trunk covered with stickers. Sunshine Village, Balloon Fiesta, and I Heart Bonaire. The store itself was a lot like the trunk: it gathered things into one place; it suggested movement, displacement, and potentiality.

On one wall were old pamphlets of Hearst Castle. An Ordinance Survey Map of Southern Britain in the Iron Age, complete with 1970s-esque illustrations. A 1909 Atlas Universel Politique-Statistique-Commerce par A.L. Hickmann. Along another wall, a collection of maps. An old barrister bookcase held the A&C Black Twenty Shillings Series and the American Guides, which were produced during the Depression as part of the Works Progress Administration.

The books were certainly organized, but the Complete Traveller also rejected classification just enough to allow the visitor to forage a little. Some of the books were not travel-oriented. I came across The Rules and Scarlett, right next to one another; I hadn’t seen either of those books in years. The Potpourri section included the tantalizingly titled Miss America, 1945 and a book by Jimmy Buffett.

The poetry section was stocked with faded blue volumes of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and The Life and Land of Burns. Cowper’s Complete Poetical Works. On a nearby table, binders bulged with old receipts and handwritten delivery slips for household goods. A collection of photographs of Clark Gable. A sign announced: Holiday Grab Bags! Vintage Books in Compromised Condition – Ten Dollars the Box.

A glass case held a letter from Olivia de Havilland to Mr. Roy Hensel of Carlisle County School in Bardwell, Kentucky: a response to several questions regarding “the enduring popularity of Gone with the Wind,” Clark Gable’s consummate professionalism, and the process of adapting the film from the novel. The same case housed several small volumes, among them The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope and Melville’s Narrative of a Four Month’s Residence Among the Natives of a Valley of the Marquesas Islands; Or a Peep at Polynesian Life. White typed cards were fastened to the books with rubber bands.

But the store’s focus was always on travel books, some of which the owner Mr. Greenberg collected on his own voyages. The Flowers and Gardens of Japan. Egyptian Birds. Romance of the Rona Villas. The Romance of the Rhine. I came across a red scrapbook filled with postcards, tourist pamphlets, and newspaper clippings of Turkey. An illustration of the Hagia Sophia. An advertisement for Turkey Past and Present: The Lectures of Charles E. Adelsen and Henry Angelo-Castrillon. The album’s pages were falling out. I wondered who had put it together.

Old books connect us to the past, both to our own personal past and to a communal past. They are material traces of trips taken. They hold the memories of famous writers and writers that few people ever knew – people who just went somewhere and wrote about it. Country Sketches for City Dwellers. Ancient Life in the American Southwest. Picture Towns of Europe. All these books suggested stories far beyond themselves.

Surveying the shelves, I knew that these books had been owned and read by countless strangers. Each had a history: someone’s name written on the inside cover, a newspaper article folded up in chapter three, dog-eared pages that might have been important pages or might have just been where a reader stopped reading. Some books had probably been gifts. Some had traveled the world, and others had never left New York City.

Park’s Travels in Africa. In Unfamiliar England Without a Motorcar. The Conquest of Everest.

Over the years, I have spent a lot of time in research libraries, where old books are stored in controlled environments and then brought to you when you need them. But in a bookstore, you are surrounded by books, some of which might interest you, some of which might not. They are not stored away. They are right there, each spine a different color, all covered in crisp clear plastic, their glossiness reflecting the light. Hours of Exercise in the Alps. Mountain Adventures at Home and Abroad.

I have a small collection of vintage Paris travel guides, so I spent some time thumbing through the bookstore’s French offerings. I took a 1912 book called The Sensations of Paris off the shelf. The author has also written a guide entitled When and How To Dine In Paris. Other books took the traveler beyond Paris: Three Normandie Inns, Three Weeks in France, Royal Riviera, The Chateaux of Touraine, Romance of the French Abbeys, Things Seen in the Pyrenees. This last title was so tantalizingly vague. What kinds of things? Who saw them?

I found a Baedeker from the mid-1980s, not long before I went to Paris for the first time with my family. I didn’t expect it to look all that different from contemporary guides; I really just wanted to see what people were wearing in the photographs and whether they resembled the characters of the French in Action videos I watched in high school. They did.

In a basket in the back of the store, I came across a slim red volume embossed with Souvenir of a Visit to the Bon Marche Founded by Aristide Boucicault PARIS in gold and lined with light blue paper. The book presented a short history of this great department store – or “Dry Goods Business” – and its policies, including employee meals, housing, medical service, and pensions, as well as a list of city streets the corresponded to a fold-out “ribbon map” of Paris: Plan de Paris des Magasins du Bon Marche. The bright pink ribbon was printed with the phrases AU BON MARCHE and NOUVEAUTES MAISON ARISTIDE and affixed to the left-hand side of the map, above a photograph of the store.

The souvenir instructed the reader that, “To find instantly any street, you have only to stretch the ribbon so as to cover the number in the margin. The street sought for will be found under the number of the ribbon.” I had never seen a map like this before. At first, I thought the ribbon was a tape measure.

This kind of object is lost when bookstores like this one close. Online shopping tends to be directed shopping: you want to find a particular book, so you look it up. Yes, you can sort of browse online, but without the material element – without actual books – it feels more like researching than browsing. Some things can only be found when you’re aimlessly looking for nothing.

While I was wandering around, a woman rushed in and asked about a particular book. The store didn’t have it, so she left. Sometimes we shop like this: we need something specific. But sometimes we just want the pleasure of looking at objects. The pleasure of taking volumes off a shelf and trying to figure them out. What is By the Waters of Egypt about? Or Brugsch’s Egypt Under the Pharaohs?

I could have never found my Bon Marche souvenir online because I didn’t know it existed. I could only have found it in this kind of bookstore. So I paid ten bucks for it and put it in my purse.

I looked around and tried to fix an image of the store in my mind. I would leave soon, and then it would be gone. The Spell of Switzerland. Seeing Europe With Famous Authors VIII: Italy and Greece, Part 2. Europe Without Baedeker. I wanted to buy everything, to claim all the volumes for myself, but I also wanted to leave them all there, in proper order on the shelves, so the world would remain stable and unchanged, if only for a while.